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Some More Thoughts on Totemism

January 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Posting some old posts I made from my LiveJournal, which I thought would be appropriate for the focus of this blog–and which I should probably have originally posted here in the first place. Originally posted here.

Recently a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous at this time) wrote a long rant in their lj about totemism on the internet. I was going to copypaste the whole thing, but in lieu of that, I’ll mainly just try to write briefly on certain points he made regarding things, and lift some select quotes (with permission).

During the course of the entry he dubbed the word “poketotem”, something that elicited in me a rueful and knowing laugh. Gotta catch them all, right?

I guess what I’m saying is that I find the common online version of this to be complete and utter bullshit. People slamming through these humongous lists of “energies” long enough to come up with one or two pathetic catch phrases to describe them, like captions in a yearbook. That’s insulting to your ancestors, animist societies, and the animals themselves. They’re not fucking Pokemon.

I can definitely understand the frustration. As a practicing animist, I sometimes feel a profound disconnect from other animists. Mainly because I don’t take the Poketotem Approach. I can’t rapidly go through multiple animals at once, compiling “totem dictionaries” that shoehorn animals into limited, specific definitions. Granted, I love exploring animal symbolism. But that symbolism should be explored from experience and research (yes, that would include scientific research), and not from the fantastical minds of those who spend way too much time on the internet, or locked in their own fantasy worlds. It’s pathetic. And that’s one big reason why I can’t stand totem dictionaries, aside from the vast majority of them being very poorly referenced and researched, and highly flavored by the person writing them.

Most cultures agree that it takes a lifetime of dedication to assign yourself the sort of title most of you so readily jump on, and no, putting a “neo” at the start of it doesn’t make you look less of a jerk. So if you find yourself churning through the entire Encyclopedia Animilia , a day or a week per species, please consider that there just may be something wrong with your approach.

Neoshamanism is, I feel, a valid practice. How it is applied, however, can be open to some debate–and is. But there is a reason why I call myself a “shamanist” instead of outright “shaman”. Curiouser and curiouser are the cases of what I call “internet shamans” who will preach the importance of respect and whatnot, but as soon as they get a little taste of popularity, the “ist” in the “shaman” slowly begins to get dropped and when this happens, I strongly begin to consider what, if at all, they have contributed to their society, to their “tribe” beyond further opportunities for people to stroke their egoes.

Because doing this Poketotem bullshit is professing the exact opposite. It is quite blatantly saying that you, yes you, are advanced and important enough to know what is significant already. That they are there for our use spiritually as well as physically, for us to pick meanings from and apply them to our lives, or ask for ridiculous favours, regardless of the intricacy and depth we know, or should know, is actually there amongst the instincts and history of these other peoples (as you so often call them.).

Well, none of us know what is significant. Even back then, the early animists didn’t. That’s why they turned to things like “elders”, and things that dwelled “beyond”. That’s why we journey, why we seek what is beyond the periphery of our bodies and our societies. For wisdom, for knowledge. People assign meaning to things to shed light on the unknown, the mysterious. I can understand the frustration though. I’ve seen totems used far too often like mascots for concepts or ideas, or crutches for people’s own shortcomings and inner demons. If animism is the idea that everything is alive in some way, then life is far more complex than a paragraph, a set of definitions, a summary.

If you feel you need some sort of internet-paced community built up around you to start this pathway, then so be it. But when your spiritual revelations start reading more like the badly written horoscopes used as filler in the back pages of cheap newspapers than real insight, step back, take your time, and go on your journey. It’s okay if you don’t get everything right away, don’t feel bad about it. That’s just our too-fast-hurry-up culture talking. This is supposed to be an individual experience that will translate to you the meanings behind your own world and place in it, and it is a journey that takes a lifetime of dedication and introspective thought. Deep down, you know that, and it was either that or the want for some pathetic internet celebrity status that you chose this path in the first place.

And here…I can’t argue with anything here. I’ve seen it far too often on the internet already. This “too-fast-hurry-up” culture really does talk. One of instant gratification and hyper-individualism. Way back when, it was the group/society/tribe before the individual, now the roles are reversed, and how we deal and work with animistic pathways is affected as result. Does this make it wrong? Depends on the perspective. I am a very individualistic person, but I was also raised and put in situations in my life that caused a sacrifice of ego and self for the betterment of group or family. I have a taste of both sides, I think both sides have much to offer in a person’s perspective. I’m not going to fall into the danger of nostalgia and the “good old days”, but I guess that can have its merits, too. But this Fast Food Animism is not one I can relate to. I may not burn through totems as rapidly as some people, I may take a longer and considerably more painful route with my shamanistic practice, but that’s my choice. I’m not going to say that my path is better, because I really don’t know the answer to that. I just know what I don’t want to be a part of, what I feel is far too shallow for me to adapt or relate to.

This post wasn’t spawned by anything in particular other than my friend’s post (which, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t spawned by anything in particular, either). It’s helped me crystallize some thoughts rolling around in my head lately.

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Plus, an addendum to this post, originally posted here

It’s not that I don’t think totemism isn’t valid for those modern animists who aren’t a member of an indigenous or tribal society, as it where. Hardly (I’d be a hypocrite obviously). It’s just that I don’t always agree with how it is applied. Then again, how it is applied may vary from society to society, so you can’t pin it down to any one particular group of people. Even still–there are ways of going about this sort of thing that doesn’t have to be shallow, careless, half-assed, and ego-serving.

Or, to put it another way, when one invokes “cultural appropriation”. Strong words, and important ones, yes. But one must also remember that cultures, religions and related have been appropriating from each other since the dawn of time. This does not justify all forms of appropriation. When all you take out are the bits you find to be attractive to you and leave out the rest, you are not doing anyone or anything any sort of justice, and you certainly aren’t helping yourself by doing so either.

Or, let me try to explain this again. The TL;DR Version: just remember to do your freaking homework. Haha.

The Ponies of Assateague, and Connecting With Totems

March 25, 2009 2 comments

On Sunday I had a close encounter with the ponies of Assateague Island National Seashore. In one incident, a palomino pony came very close to the car, and I was able to stroke its mane briefly. The second incident occurred near the island’s visitor center, were my fiancee and I were able to watch a small family unit of a brown male, female and a male foal graze on the lawn outside the parking lot. The foal came up real close to me, and I was able to stroke his forehead briefly. We spent some time sitting on the lawn observing them. They seemed very unconcerned with our presence, at peace with the land and with the naked apes watching them. One could say I’m an ass in that I shouldn’t be touching wild animals–and to be honest, that’s the big rule I keep that I ended up breaking. If it wasn’t for the ponies initiating the contact, I probably would have (and still should have?) kept my hands to myself.

This got me thinking about a couple of things, though. First was the meaning and message behind these ponies. I’ve seen them off and on for most of my life, ever since I started traveling to the coast with my family as a small child and could consciously remember doing so. They seemed to me to be like the mythical hippocampus, a union between land and sea. They were also elusive. Some days you’d visit the island and travel the whole length of it, not seeing a pony in sight. Another time you’d see several, and they would sit on the side of the road, some of them waiting for cars to slow down, habituated by unscrupulous visitors trying to feed them. They were trusting, sometimes to a fault. They also reminded me of endurance, perseverance. They’ve adapted to that island since they came there in the 1600s, most likely from a sunken Spanish vessel off the coast. Marooned on foreign land, they’ve made the best of the situation, and flourished.

The other thing that got me thinking was that I had always taken the island for granted, with the easy access I’ve had to it. In fact, I’ve had many experiences in my life were I could have direct interaction with many different types of animals in many settings. My totemic work reflects this strongly, and generally I can’t seem to understand, nor relate with, people who write long and intricate totem dictionaries of animals they’ve had no personal interaction with. There is the issue of globalization, but there is also the issue of old school. The animistic cultures and societies of the past built their totemic view of animals by direct personal experience, interaction, and sharing the environment with these animals. This seems to be a very different tack from many of the totemists of today, who base most of their views on wildlife books and programs, and UPG. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with that in itself, but it really opens up a whole new world when you take that extra effort to see the animal in person, even if it’s just in a zoo (although zoo animals tend to display atypical behavior, you can still learn a lot about an animal by observing even the abnormal behaviors.)

I’m a bit spoiled in that I’ve had the opportunity to work in veterinary clinics, pet retail, wildlife centers, parks, in addition to living close to numerous parks, refuges, zoos, museums and other places were one can seek a more personal connection with the natural world. Not everyone has this sort of access. It’s something I need to remember, and maybe have patience with, when interacting with fellow totemists. The thing I have a problem with is those who write totem dictionaries disseminating information about an animal that is incorrect from a biological standpoint, and from a symbolic standpoint it completely flies in the face of what is otherwise known about the animal. That is something I have a problem with. To spread misinformation, even unintentionally, just isn’t cool. People need to be more mindful.

I think what needs to be done is to call attention to these errors, and encourage people to seek more direct experience with the wilderness around them. Even if you live in the middle of the city, nature survives somewhere.

I guess it’s something I’m still rolling around in my head.

The Rat King

March 19, 2009 3 comments

To me, New York means rats.

I first visited New York back in 2001, just a month prior to the events of September 11th. Rats have been visiting me symbolically and most heavily in my dreams many months before. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve experienced both in the same year, or maybe it’s because NYC is considered the rat mecca of the country that I associated the two together in the first place.

The curious thing about it all is that I have never once seen a wild rat, the primary focus of my obsession, before my most recent trip to the Big Apple. Since ’01 I began keeping domestic specimens of R. Norvegicus, an animal that is as different from the wild rat as a dog is from a wolf, but like the two, still possessing numerous similarities in trait and character. The pitter-patter of little rodent feet traveled from the realm of my dreams into my physical habitat. Somehow it wasn’t quite enough though. Something continued to gnaw incessantly on the periphery of my consciousness.

My most recent trip to NYC happened in mid-February of this year, roughly ten days after the death of my four-year old rat Mina, and roughly a week after the arrival of my fiancee from Germany. Throughout the trip I recounted the long legacy of rats (mostly all female), and the lessons they’ve taught me. I can say with the utmost confidence that any animal, however small, that comes into your life can change it forever. Mina certainly did. But in their own way they all did.

We stood on the subway platform, my fiancee and my parents and younger brother, killing time and waiting for the next train to arrive after a brief delay. I was zoning out, staring into the rails below. It was a long day with lots of walking, and I was exhausted. Suddenly, a portion of the sludgy grayness below jumped to life and began to move, darting suddenly across my vision. I blinked once, then twice, until I realized what I was looking at. It was a wild rat. I took off running down the platform alongside it, snapping pictures on my iPhone, and watching as a second and then a third appeared, prancing along the rails.

The Rat King finally decided to reveal himself.

The mythical Rat King has one of two origins. The first and more folkloric origin of a ‘rat king’ is when a bunch of rats become connected by their tails, and end up growing together. These mostly involve black rats.

There is yet a more contemporary and postmodern take on the rat king, one reported by municipal workers, police officers, exterminators, and many others. The Rat King in the postmodern age is an exceptionally large male rat, one commonly seen leading a pack of other rats.

From a postmodern shamanistic perspective, to me the Rat King represents the all-encompassing rat totem. The Big Rat.

To work with the Rat King is to work with an agent of balance and in-betweenness. In the West, poverty, the slums and misfortune are associated with rats. Poor housing. Disease–the rat was considered the main transmitter of the plague in Europe in the Middle Ages. In the East, when the rice harvest was good and the stores were full, people found rats. They symbolized abundance, wealth and plenty. While visiting the Chinatown district of NYC, my fiancee gifted me with a statue featuring a golden rat, seated upon a bed of coins, and surrounded by baby rats. A very classic and common figure of the rat in Eastern symbolism.

Two sides of the same coin. Balance and rhythm. Family, community, survival and persistence. Knowing and appreciating your origins. Where you are and where you are going.

This will be a first in a series of posts on my dealings with the Rat King, as well as rat symbolism and other related totemic and animistic information on things rat.

Drive-by Coyote-musings

November 29, 2008 Leave a comment

If Coyote taught me anything in my life, it’s to never be a specialist. Being a jack-of-all trades has its benefits, and it’s much easier to avoid stagnation and being stuck in a rut. Coyotes themselves aren’t specialists, they are immensely flexible creatures both genetically as well as socially and intellectually. They can function in small packs or large, or completely solitary. They can scavenge, they can hunt. They can adapt to almost any environment. The pressures put on them by humans and the ever-changing environment around them only seem to aid in their transformation. They are indeed a very alchemical creature.

There are advantages to being a specialist, just as there are advantages to being a jack-of-all-trades. Just compare a hunting coyote to a hunting jaguar (which, the two do share overlapping territories in South America and formerly states like Arizona and New Mexico) and you can see which one is the more specialized hunter. However, there are also advantages to adapting oneself in multiple areas at once–of the two animals, which one happens to be endangered, and which one thrives despite the pressures put upon it? I’m going to throw the breaks on this metaphor for now though, because it dances dangerously close to lauding one totem over another, which is certainly not my intention nor my focus.

Steering back on track, my focus here is that, as a totem, teacher and even godform, Coyote has taught me that it doesn’t benefit me to stay in ruts. This is especially true of my magical and shamanic practice. Sticking to the tenets of my primary totem, I always make sure to keep myself constantly flexible, so that I’m able to evolve and adapt my practice, and my mind, as often as possible.